Sunday Sermon: Pentacost 2

June 26, 2011—Matthew 10:40-42

Last week, I preached on the riots in Vancouver, and the escalation of a mob mentality. Now we have the sequel. So the mood turned quickly — from commiseration, to shock, to anger. By Sunday, people were outing the rioters on Facebook, identifying them based on pictures that ran on the Internet. Some of the pictures, showing young people smiling in front of damaged cars and store windows, could inspire only our outrage. One young woman, who went into a store and stole two pairs of men’s pants — for a souvenir, she said — lost her job. A few parents turned their kids in to police, forcing them to take responsibility for what they had done. A 17-year-old delivered himself to the police station and owned up to stuffing a lit rag into the gas tank of a police car.

The reaction by citizens has been angry and hostile. Parents have reported getting death threats to their homes. One family has even moved out.  People who participated in the riots have been attacked verbally online. Even those who were on the streets when it happened — and as one woman explained on CBC this weekend — and who could not easily escape when the riot began have been the subject of nasty critics.

There’s a line here, and we need to ask ourselves whether it has been crossed: have we passed from righteous indignation to self-righteous scapegoating? We want to think that this was the work of disenfranchised thugs, but it wasn’t: many of these people were youth who are from families that are stunned they would act this way. It could have been any one of us.  As parents, it could have been any one of our kids. We want to believe otherwise. But those parents, the ones forcing their kids to own up to what they have done, also believed it to be so.

The gospel this morning gives us specific directions most importantly, in these words from Jesus: Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward. We know our calling: to serve and tend to others, especially the little ones.
But this morning’s gospel may also be confusing, with all its talk of righteousness:
“Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”
Let’s try to break that down. Look at it starting with perhaps the easiest part: the reward. What is our reward for good deeds? We might make it all about heaven, but that is too literal, and it makes us focus on a payback down the road. That’s like saying we do good deeds so we get something out of it, and good deeds done with this mindset are tainted. I like to think Jesus meant something deeper than this: that the reward of the righteous is the natural high that comes from doing something for someone else. Not only is this good for us, but practice makes perfect: doing good deeds lead to doing more good deeds. Following the gospel leads to more of the same: it takes work.

But who, as the gospel says, is this righteous person who merits our welcome? What do they look like? What do they act like? The dictionary defines the word “righteous” as “morally right or justifiable; virtuous. Perfectly wonderful.” I guess that limits our welcome down to, well, absolutely no one. Find me a person who is “morally right” all the time. Even Jesus, in the famous story of the woman at the well, was forced, on at least one occasion, to adjust what he believed on first reaction. Find me a person who acts, every day, in a way that is justifiable.  Certainly the disciples, who at one point begged Jesus to stay up in the mountain in the hopes of keeping him to themselves, who scurried away in the darkest day – acted, on occasion, in their own self- interest. And “perfectly wonderful”? I don’t even think I need to touch that one.

Yet we know Jesus meant for us to extend our welcome to the widest circle we can. So that means we have to change our definition of righteous. In this context then, a righteous person has to be someone who tries to do their best, someone who screws up and feels badly for it, someone who faces up to the consequences of their mistakes. More than that, it must include the person that we hope our welcome may be of some service to – based on the idea that everyone has the potential to be better. Suddenly, under that definition: pretty much everyone merits our welcome, especially, you might say, the people who do something really dumb and out-of-character and feel the sting of shame afterwards.

And what about that welcome? What does Jesus mean by that? Welcome is a pretty full response: it suggests an embrace. It suggests a warm greeting, admitting someone into our circle. It also suggests that in some way, the person in question has turned up at our door, has sought out our welcome. That young man who apologized tearfully for what he did during the riot and paid a price for it deserves our welcome. Not threats upon his family. Not even judgement at this point. He, and others, have sought our welcome: our duty to the gospel is to accept it.

All the time, people in our lives come seeking our welcome.  Usually they are seeking forgiveness or acceptance or understanding. The people around us disappoint us and screw up, and when we close our doors to them we have failed Jesus. We have not been righteous: the moral response must be to forgive and to embrace. And we know this because the opposite response is exclusion and anger. That is not to say people don’t pay a price for their actions; since we have all been there, we know we do.  Sometimes it’s shame or guilt; sometimes it’s the punishment of  society. Eventually, though, most of us seek out a welcome and hope that we receive one.

“Welcome a righteous person in the name of a righteous person.”
It is a thin line between righteousness and self-righteousness, and among misinterpretations of the gospel, this is one of them. We have seen self-righteousness well in play this past week, where the riots are concerned.

“Had these parents not raised their kids correctly — or spanked them enough?” as one man said on the CBC call-in show. “How could people be such sheep? That would never be me.” The problem with self-righteousness is that it simplifies life in a destructive way: it says I am right and that is the end of it. I have it all figured out, and I don’t need to hear anything else. I will close my mind to someone else’s truths. I will judge, but keep myself above judgement. We may disagree, but when that disagreement is rude or hurtful to others, then we step dangerously into a place of self-righteousness. In fact, we should be asking larger questions, questions we would all do well to ask. Could there be other things at play here besides negligent parents and stupid kids? What about the role of the media, who played up a game as measure of national pride? What about the Internet and reality television, that teach people – and not just youth – that being famous, for any reason, is something to strive for? What about the alcohol industry, that advertises everywhere, and the government, which profits when people drink more than they should? By being self-righteous, we make it all about those people in that place. A righteous person considers the role they play in any ethical debate – to what extent are their prejudices or their personal experiences shaping their own attitudes about an issue? A self-righteous person chooses blindness.

So this passage in the gospel may, on first reading, sound as if it is telling us to pick and choose whom we welcome. But in the context of everything else that Jesus teaches us, we know this cannot be true. We are to offer a welcome to everyone who seeks it from us. And we are to reach out to those who do not, or cannot, with a glass of water. That’s  a tall order. But the gospel, if it is worth anything, requires us to shift perspective, to be understanding.

The second lesson talks a lot about sin, a dangerous word since it suggests we must decided who sins. But that second lesson gives us a warning: choose carefully whom you will follow, and you are slaves to that person. And this applies as much to one mob as the other: those who act wrongly and those who cast judgment. Be “slaves to righteousness” we are told, and enjoy the gift of eternal life. That may be as much about how we are remembered by the ones who love us, as about heaven itself. And how would we all like to be remembered? As someone who shut the door when others sought welcome? Or as the person who opened the door in the name of the gospel?

Amen.
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